The Spike in Global Hunger
The Fletcher School, Tufts University
Global hunger has risen to record levels. Up to 811 million people — about a tenth of the world’s population— currently confront hunger, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). The striking increase in hunger pre-dates the war in Ukraine, but the war has strongly accelerated that trend. The magnitude of this crisis is growing rapidly: the number of people in low and middle-income countries who suffer acute food insecurity — when insufficient food consumption puts lives or livelihoods in immediate danger — has doubled since 2019 to 276 million people. These dramatic increases in global hunger and food insecurity are the result of a perfect storm of conflict, COVID-19, climate, and cost.
In inflation-adjusted levels, world food prices now exceed the highs reached during the previous food crises in 1974 and 2007.
- Hunger is formally defined as the condition of consuming fewer calories per day than required for a healthy active life and it ranges in severity. Nearly 50 million people face emergency levels of hunger, currently at the brink of famine, according to the WFP. In Africa alone, food crises affect an estimated 346 million people. This quiet form of devastation is concentrated among the roughly 50 poorest and most conflict-afflicted countries. The most acute crises are in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Madagascar, and Yemen, where in total more than half a million people are at risk of starvation.
- The combined effects of conflict, climate change, and the pandemic have all contributed to record high food prices. The FAO’s Food Price Index has jumped by over 45% in just the past two years (see chart). In inflation-adjusted levels, world food prices now exceed the highs reached during the previous food crises in 1974 and 2007. This phenomenon is made worse by recent bans of wheat exports by India, Egypt, and other countries trying to protect domestic consumers. It is common for poor households in low and middle-income countries to spend well over half of their total budget on food. Even small-holder farmers, who tend to be net buyers of food, are hurt by higher food prices. The Center for Global Development has recently estimated that the current spike in global food prices will push an additional 40 million people into severe poverty.
- Conflict is one of the biggest drivers of hunger. An estimated 60% of the world’s hungry live in areas riven by war and violence according to the WFP. The effects of war and violence on hunger are both direct and indirect. In areas of active conflict, where people are forced from their homes and lose their sources of income, hunger can reach crisis levels. In Ethiopia’s northern Tigray Province, for example, fighting between the Government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front has contributed to “famine-like conditions” for 700,000 people. Endemic international and domestic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern provinces has contributed to the DRC’s having the world’s biggest food crisis, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The WFP reports record levels of hunger in Afghanistan, where nearly 20 million people – nearly half the country’s population – face acute hunger. In Syria, years of civil war have left over half the population with acute food insecurity. In each of these cases (among many more), the indirect effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have severely exacerbated the problem of hunger.
- The war in Ukraine has upended global food markets. Prior to the invasion, Ukraine’s and Russia’s combined export shares of the global food trade included 28% of wheat, 75% of sunflower oil, as well as significant shares of globally traded barley and maize (see here). According to the FAO, 26 countries source over half of their wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. For a few countries, such as Somalia and Eritrea, dependency on Ukrainian and Russian wheat approaches 100% of imports.
- In addition to dramatically reducing this year’s supplies, especially of wheat and sunflower oil, the war in Ukraine will substantially reduce next year’s harvest through the war’s impact on fertilizer prices. Fertilizer prices had increased rapidly prior to the war, driven largely by increased energy prices. But the fact that Russia had been the world’s leading exporter of chemical fertilizers has also accelerated this trend. From 2020 to 2021 the price of fertilizer on world markets doubled. It’s doubled again since last year. This trend threatens next year’s crop, particularly in countries that have depended on Russian fertilizer exports. The Economist notes that in 2021, 25 countries purchased nearly one-third of their chemical fertilizers from Russia alone.
- Climate-related events are also fueling the global hunger crisis. The WFP ranks climate change as second only to conflict as a cause of hunger, noting that 80% of the world’s hungry live in areas prone to natural disasters and extreme weather. Across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, Oxfam America and Save the Children estimate that the most severe drought in 40 year is leading to one starvation death every 48 seconds in addition to the death of millions of livestock. The International Food Policy Research Institute projects that the effect of climate change in South Asia, as reflected in the recent wave of extreme heat, will increase the number of hungry people by nearly 23 million by 2030.
- COVID-19 has added to these problems through a combination of increased unemployment, supply chain disruptions, widespread lockdowns. In turn, hunger has increased the severity of COVID-19 virulence and increased mortality by weakening immune systems among the world’s most vulnerable populations.
- Lack of adequate nutrition is associated with a large share of infant deaths worldwide, as well as negative long-term cognitive and health outcomes for those who survive long periods of deprivation. Around 45% of global deaths among children under 5 years of age are linked to undernutrition, according to the World Health Organization. Undernutrition presents in different forms, including wasting (extremely low weight-for-height); stunting (extremely low height-for-age), underweight (extremely low weight-for-age); and micronutrient malnutrition (inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals). A recent review of the economics of malnutrition notes that short stature (a marker of long-term malnutrition) is associated with many adverse later-life health and socioeconomic outcomes, including reduced cognitive functioning, lower schooling, and increased morbidity and mortality. A study of the nutritional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic published prior to the war in Ukraine suggested that by 2022, pandemic-related disruptions could result in an additional 9.3 million wasted children, 2.6 million stunted children, and 168,000 child deaths. More recently, the United Nations has warned that the war in Ukraine is contributing to a “massive malnutrition crisis.”
What this Means:
Global hunger was rising well before the war in Ukraine, and disruptions to both food and agricultural input markets resulting from the war have greatly accelerated that trend for both the short and medium terms. The International Food Policy Research Institute proposes a “do no harm” set of policy responses, including: 1) exempt food and fertilizer from trade sanctions, 2) refrain from export bans, 3) avoid hoarding and panic buying of commodities, 4) target food subsidies to the neediest, 5) provide humanitarian aid, and 6) suspend biofuels mandates and subsidies. The urgency of such actions in the current situation is magnified by the recognition that the negative effects of early life malnutrition can permanently impair child growth and cognitive development.